Volume 32, Number 2

How to Read the Decameron

It’s all about Love—
sly, trickster, ravenous love;
lust (moved Day Ten to forbearance
or peaceful restraint).

You must understand
they’re avatars, courtly
yet coursing with hormones:
three rich boys, seven lady-girls

said to be Virtues
but red-lipped and flesh-bound:
besieged by the Black Death;
fled to a faerie landscape

countering piled corpses,
suppurating sores, the stench
of pus from cloaked forms
stumbling cobbled lanes,

with dainty sweetmeats
set feasts by fountains
gay barcaroles. We know plague
better now: how it upends

expectations, extends
fingers of fear through cracks
and corners, turns beings to beasts
from quenched hope.

Half their town’s defunct—
mothers, brothers, dukes
and clans swept away. Carts
trundle streets, stacked

with white bundles—
yet the group chuckles at lying friars
arrogant judges dumped in shit-ditches;
dunderheads, numbskulls, fleeced,

swozzled, turned upside down;
wives clapped ball to buttocks
leaning on barrel staves.
What then, of the ending?

Casually, tales done, they
abandon their Garden
return to a charnel-world,
untouched by fright.

By force of dance and laughter
charmed skies stay clear.
Their vaccine is story—
shared discourse of bawdy

deceptions, hot couplings,
transcendent friendship—
blithe band of humans
lambent in amber,

salved by community:
bearing sealed ampoules of joy.

—Michael H. Levin